Day 18 – Lady On The Water

It was another early start on Day 9 of the Rimu tour. Okarito looked like an ideal place to spend a day lounging around and chillaxing. However, the more ambitious members of our group assembled down by the wharf at 8:00 am for a three-hour self-guided kayak tour of the Okarito lagoon and river system.

The sea kayaks were pretty similar to our Milford Sound rigs – yellow two-seaters with foot-operated rudders. We were given a basic safety briefing and orientation session, then we were outfitted with spray skirts and life jackets. The local waters were substantially shallower (and warmer) than Milford Sound, and there would definitely be no cruise ships to avoid, so the briefing was pretty laid back.

We were getting an early start because Okarito lagoon is a tidal estuary. When we first dipped our paddles in the water and set off from the wharf, the tide was still rising and filling the lagoon. Travelling with the tidal current was like having a small trolling motor to push us along. We would pay for this luxury later.

We followed a series of channels into the lagoon, quietly slipping past plenty of shags and gulls and a few magnificent white herons. After paddling around the lower half of the lagoon for about an hour, we embarked on a journey up the Okarito River. On this day, I had elected to take the back seat position while Danny provided propulsion up front. We turned out to be a pretty good team – Danny was eager to row and helped point out obstacles ahead. I focused on steering and managed to keep us from running into any fallen trees or shallow sandbars. Cathy was at the helm of Betsy’s kayak, with the team of Cam and Bil right behind them. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, despite the sneezing and wheezing going on amongst most of our crew (me included). We nicknamed this particularly viral chest cold “the Ann-Slam” in honour of Patient Zero.

Our kayaks only needed about 30 centimetres of draft to stay afloat, but eventually we reached a point in the river that was shallow enough to require a portage. We hopped out of our boat and tugged it across some extremely slippery stones. I avoided making a big splash, but just barely. Danny particularly seemed to enjoy the cold water; his ankles were still swollen from the previous day’s walk and cold feet suited him just fine. After we made it back into navigable waters, Danny graciously helped to tow a few other kayaks across the portage while I snapped some photographs. Danny and I led the way upriver to a scenic arched bridge, which was our suggested turnaround point. The portage on the way back out seemed shorter than just 45 minutes earlier, testament to how quickly waters can rise in a tidal area.

The biggest challenge came from rowing against the tide in order to get back to the wharf. The tour company guide had suggested following some side-channels through the weeds to minimize the current, and they certainly helped. But once we got back onto the lagoon proper, we immediately noticed the current dragging on our bow. A stiff sea breeze in our faces wasn’t helping the situation, either.

With a couple of kilometres left to go, Danny and I focused on rowing strongly and efficiently. We took long strokes, and tried to stay synchronized. After about fifteen minutes of this pectoral workout, I set down my paddle long enough to snap a few photos of the rainforest overhanging the shoreline. I thought we had been making pretty good progress against the current, but when Danny set his paddle down for a second to take a drink of water I noticed the trees on the shoreline change direction. Instead of us moving past the trees, the trees were passing us. The current was pushing us backwards! Rest time would evidently have to wait for the end of the journey.

Fifteen minutes later, Danny and I were the first kayak to pull up to the wharf. I took a seat at a picnic table while some of our compatriots finished their trips. I was reminded why it’s important on any journey (kayak, hike, or bike) to periodically turn around to enjoy a different perspective. The Southern Alps, the misty clouds and the rainforest perfectly framed this photo of Betsy and Cathy as they rowed into view.

Kayak on Okarito Lagoon

Most of our tour group had a free afternoon to loiter around Okarito. Five of us thankfully had a second chance to make the Franz Josef Glacier heli-hike. We drove back into town, and this time we were in luck. Thick clouds were obscuring the top reaches of the glacier, but the usual helicopter landing spot on the glacier was below the cloud deck so we were good to go! We got changed into warm boots and waterproof coats, then walked to the helicopter launch pad.

With family and friends all over North America, I’ve flown on plenty of commercial jets. I occasionally get to fly on a 9-seat corporate jet for work, and I’ve even made a couple of flights on a float plane. But this was my first-ever helicopter flight, and it was a completely new experience. Six of us buckled in next to the pilot and put on our headsets. The pilot pulled back on the control stick, and we rose straight up into the air. When the pilot dipped the nose, we started flying forward over the treetops towards the glacier. It was a unique and invigorating way to fly through spectacular scenery.

Helicopter Flight to FJG

The helicopter set us down partway up the glacier, where two ice guides greeted us. Two more helicopters arrived in turn, depositing about sixteen adventurers for a tour of the glacier. We strapped crampons onto our boots before splitting into two groups of eight for a two-hour hike on Franz Josef Glacier.

Cliff was my group’s ice guide, and once he ascertained that we were all pretty agile in crampons he led us up the glacier towards an icefall. He explained that Franz Josef is one of the fastest flowing glaciers in the world, sometimes moving several metres per day. As such, the scenery is constantly evolving. Cliff was an experienced guide, and took us to many very cool looking ice formations and tunnels. From time to time, he would stop and look around to see which of the massive ice chunks looked primed to collapse. He did his best to show us the coolest spots without putting us in danger, occasionally chopping some new steps into the ice with his trusty axe. This photo of Cliff and I puts the size of the ice formations in context.

Ice Formations on Franz Josef Glacier

Since we were visiting on a cloudy day, the gorgeous blue colour of the compressed ice was especially prominent. The glacier was perforated by tunnels where melting water disappeared into the ice, providing lubrication for the ice sheet as it ground over the underlying stone. Cliff showed us some examples of tunnels that for one reason or another had gone dry. Some were large enough for us to crawl through. Other tunnels were smaller but just as photogenic. This nearly vertical tunnel was fascinating to examine from below.

Ice Tunnel in Franz Josef Glacier

We eventually looped around to the helipad for the flight back to base, but I could have spent a few more hours exploring the glacier. After confidently striding up and down 30-degree inclines, I made a mental note to buy some crampons for winter hikes back home in the Rockies. I normally prefer the old-fashioned approach of walking through the backcountry to go sightseeing, but now I completely understand the appeal of helicopter tourism. Our heli-hike on Franz Josef Glacier was an unforgettable, supernatural experience that was worth every penny.

Back in Okarito, we were treated to a wonderful lamb dinner that Nat had obviously spent most of the day preparing for us. I had many new stories and photos from the glacier hike to share with my buddies, most of whom had spent the afternoon napping to recharge their batteries. I was exhausted from all of the day’s activities, but I saved just enough energy to watch another sunset down at the beach. From rowing a kayak through a salt-water rainforest, to hiking among ice formations larger than my house, to watching the sun splash into the Tasman Sea, it had been another life-affirming day.

Song of the Day: “Lady on the Water” by Blitzen Trapper

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Day 17 – Heading for Nowhere

On this day, we traversed scenic Haast Pass en route to the rugged coastline of Westland. The west coast of the south island is remote and sparsely populated, even by New Zealand standards. We were, in effect, heading for nowhere.

Johann “Julius” von Haast was a 19th century Prussian geologist that spent much of his professional career exploring the isles of Aotearoa. After crossing the Southern Alps at Haast Pass, our tour group followed the banks of the Haast River to the coastal village of Haast. When not cataloguing rocks, the geologist studied the skeletons of an extinct species of bird that came to be known as Haast’s eagle. Sir Julius evidently recognized a naming opportunity when he saw one.

Our first stop of the day was at (wait for it) Haast Beach. It was mid-morning and drizzling rain when we arrived, so most people didn’t venture too far from the bus. But a little precipitation will never keep me away from watching waves crash on lonely beaches. I’m drawn to them like a moth to a flame. I donned my Gore-Tex jacket, cued up an appropriate soundtrack, and hiked across the sand. Our stop was only fifteen minutes long, but I spent every possible second staring at the surf.

An impossibly long one-way bridge took us over the mouth of the Haast River. From there we continued our journey along Highway 6, bearing northeast along the Tasman coast. Perhaps an hour later, we made another stop at Bruce Bay. The rain had subsided, so a few more brave souls scrambled down to the beach this time. Bruce Bay is notable for being decorated by beautiful, surf-polished quartz stones. The rounded rocks ranged in size from marbles or peppermints up to rugby balls and beyond. I felt mixed emotions about what has apparently become a tradition among tourists at this beach. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of the prettiest stones had messages scrawled on them in black marker. Some of the messages were touching poems or elegies to long-lost souls, but many more were of the “Jimmy Wuz Here” variety. The overall impression skewed much closer to graffiti than tribute; I silently wished people would just appreciate the pure aesthetic beauty of the milk-white stones. Perhaps over time, the rain and the surf will wash away the markings and even the score.

With a full afternoon of activities in front of us, we ate our lunch on the bus. Our destination was the spectacular Franz Josef Glacier. Franz Josef, and nearby Fox Glacier, are very unique. I can think of nowhere else in the world that glaciers flow from alpine peaks, grinding their way downhill through a temperate rain forest, only to terminate near an ocean. One subset of our tour group was planning to spend the afternoon walking to the terminal face of the glacier. Most of the stronger hikers (Sally and Colin, Cam and Bil, Cathy and Betsy) were set to attack the much more strenuous track to the Alex Knob viewpoint. I fell into a third category – I had decided to treat myself to a helicopter hike right on top of Franz Josef Glacier. We dropped off the second group at the Alex Knob trailhead around 1:15 pm before heading into town to see about the heli-hike.

The west coast of New Zealand is one of the wettest places in the world. The Franz Josef glacier area gets six to eight metres (over 240 inches) of precipitation a year, so low clouds are a common occurrence. And there were plenty of low clouds as we pulled into the heli-hiking centre. Not surprisingly, our 2:30 pm reservation had been cancelled on account of the poor visibility and we were automatically rebooked for the following day. Sensing my disappointment, our lead guide graciously let me choose between joining the rest of the group on the terminal face walk versus taking me back to the Alex Knob track. I didn’t fly 13,000 km to go on easy hikes; I predictably opted for the challenge of trying to catch up with my friends. I frantically dug my hiking poles out of my travel bag and got dressed for wet & sloppy conditions as the bus zipped back to the trailhead. My friends had a 40-minute head start – this wasn’t going to be easy.

The Alex Knob trail is a steep 16 km out-and-back tramp through podocarp hardwood rainforest. The full hike takes approximately eight hours, and should be started very early in the morning to get to the viewpoint before the omnipresent clouds roll in. In the back of my mind, I probably knew that there would be little chance of experiencing stunning glacial vistas on this day. But I was fixated on catching up to my new buddies, so I hiked faster than I’d ever hiked before. I was pretty certain that our hiking guide was going to turn the group around at about 3:30 pm, so I sprinted the reasonably flat first kilometre or two of trail.

Sprinting was not an option once I got to what our guide had called ‘the steep bit’.

Calling the Alex Knob track a ‘hiking trail’ is a little bit disingenuous. Parts of the trail, while steep, can reasonably be labeled a hike. But from time to time, it’s far more accurate to call it an obstacle course inside of a humidifier. There are places where you have to abandon your hiking poles and use your hands and toes (and wits) to scramble up and over slippery rock outcroppings. The scientific part of me knows that 140-percent relative humidity is technically not possible, but during my first rainforest speed hike I began to have doubts. My clothing was soaked from the inside out before the real rain even began to fall. More than once I had to unzip my wrist cuffs to let the moisture pour out. The tour company had advised us to invest in wool and synthetic clothing so that we would stay reasonably warm when wet. It turned out that my $80 Icebreaker t-shirt and $100 polyester rain-shedding pants were wise investments.

I stopped for a very quick break about 30 minutes into the hike to drink some water and catch my breath. While unzipping my backpack, I became aware that someone or something was watching me. I looked up over my left shoulder to find a woodpigeon perched perhaps a metre away. This majestic creature was so close that I had to take a step back to get my camera to focus properly.

NZ Woodpigeon

Temporarily rehydrated, I continued my slog up the hill. After about an hour of marching through mud, I started to hear noises on the switchbacks above me. Perhaps ten minutes later, I caught up to my associates just as they were reaching a place called Rata Lookout. They were surprised to see me, but disappointed that my helicopter adventure had been postponed. In fact, we were all pretty dismayed to discovered that Rata Lookout featured a ‘view’ of nothing but a grey morass of clouds. After busting our humps up a slippery mountainside, we realized we had been heading for nowhere. We consoled ourselves with the thought that at least we were getting a great workout.

Since the rain was making the rocks very slippery, our tour guide recommended that we turn around and hike back down. I hung out at Rata Lookout for a few minutes eating some snacks with Bil before scooting downhill. I caught up with Cathy and Cam and we managed to have some fun in the rain, finding out that climbing down over mud-slicked rocks isn’t any easier than scrambling up and over them. Everyone was completely soaked by the time we got back to the trailhead, but we somehow managed to not be miserable. Colin made a friend for life when he stepped out of the bus brandishing a cold beer with my name on it. You can take a man out of England, but you can’t take the England out of a man.

A few radio calls and pickups later, our entire wet and tired group was reunited on the bus. The twisty ride out to the tiny, isolated village of Okarito was a pretty quiet affair. Our spirits picked up when the sun broke through the clouds as we approached the coast. Most of the group would be spending the next two nights at a charming communal lodge. Danny and I, the bachelors who had ponied up for single supplements, really lucked out and were shown across the road to a private beach house called Gonfishin’. We had a three-bedroom, two-bathroom palace all to ourselves, complete with a full kitchen, laundry, and a massive living room. It even had satellite TV, a stereo system, and two beer fridges – the perfect bachelor pad. Best of all, as soon as I opened the patio doors I could hear and smell the surf. The ocean was only a two-minute walk away.

After cleaning up and changing into dry clothes, our group reconvened at the lodge for dinner. There were rumours that the evening’s entertainment would involve some card games or Yahtzee, but evidently everyone had dutifully stocked up on booze back in town. Things devolved pretty quickly into a very animated game of charades. Something cerebral wasn’t in the cards this evening – but mad gesticulations and lots of screaming and laughing fit the bill perfectly.

When I noticed the light starting to fade in the western sky, I slipped back over to Gonfishin’ and liberated a couple of glorious Speight’s lagers from ‘my’ fridge. I followed the walking path westward and found a comfortable spot to sit upon a large piece of driftwood to watch the colours fade from orange to red to violet. It was unfortunate that I couldn’t entice a certain someone to join me, but watching the sun set over the Tasman Sea was one of the highlights of the Rimu tour.

Okarito Sunset

Okarito might be in the middle of nowhere, but it sure felt like somewhere to me.

Song of the Day: “Heading for Nowhere” by Jets Overhead

Day 16 – Perfect Day

The ‘morning after the night before’ began with a brisk walk across Queenstown to a charming bistro next to Lake Wakatipu. There’s nothing better than eggs to chase away the last vestiges of a mild hangover, so I ordered the eggs benedict. Once again we encountered a unique Kiwi spin on international cuisine. In Auckland, I’d had a green Thai curry that seemed to be sorely lacking any kind of heat – and didn’t come with coconut rice, either! In Milford Sound, we’d been served vegetarian pizza that featured plenty of sweet potato chunks but precious little cheese. On this day in Queenstown, we encountered a most unusual hollandaise sauce that seemed to be based on mayonnaise instead of butter. I’m compliant to a fault when it comes to restaurant meals – I can count on one hand the number of meals I’ve sent back to the kitchen. I grudgingly made it through my eggs benny, but they understandably weren’t to everyone’s taste.

This was the only blemish on what I’ve realized in retrospect was the perfect Sunday.

We boarded our minibus ‘Frank’ for a short trip east, north, and west (direct routes are rare on the south island) to the town of Wanaka. Our guides dropped us off a few kilometres east of town for a nice walk on glacier-carved Mount Iron. A well-graded gravel trail looped through pastures and meadows and scrub brush en route to the top of the iron-shaped knoll. Cathy and I assumed our usual positions at the front of the pack and raced each other to the summit. From 240 metres above the surrounding terrain, we were rewarded with panoramic views of Lake Wanaka and the snowy peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park.

Lake Wanaka from Mt Iron Summit

Sally and Colin joined us for the relatively steep descent down a different face of the knoll. After looping back around to our starting point, we extended the length of our walk to about 8 km by following the road into town. Back in Wanaka, we sat on the beach and watched boats bob up and down on windy Roys Bay while we lunched on chicken wraps. Black-billed gulls with spooky white eyes loitered at our feet, waiting for handouts.

In the afternoon, we were outfitted with 27-speed hardtail mountain bikes for a ride on the scenic Te Araroa trail. Our guides started our ride at the town of Lake Hawea so that we wouldn’t have to fight the strong north breeze during the 24 km cross-country ride back to Wanaka.

The first half of the trail followed the Hawea River through pastures and rolling countryside. The trek got a little more technical when we dropped down into the trees next to the river, but it was no comparison to the Queenstown gondola trails. This was a leisurely Sunday afternoon cross-country ride with mercifully few chances of peril. Naturally, I found a few corners to fishtail around and a few jumps to get some air under my bike anyway. In a funny parallel to our hikes, it didn’t take long for Cathy, Milton and I to break free of the peloton. I was glad to see Milton’s bike handling skills in action, since we were both booked to go on the 3-day mountain biking excursion later in the Rimu tour.

A suspension bridge took us over the Hawea River into Albert Town. We followed a mixture of multi-purpose trails and paved streets across town, including a fun 1000-metre grind up Gunn Road. After ten minutes in second gear (though it seemed more like an hour), we reached the roundabout at the top of the hill and stopped to guzzle some water. Despite the sweaty clothes and sore legs, there is something oddly addictive about exerting yourself on a steep climb.

The second half of our trek followed the Clutha River back to Lake Wanaka. We rode a series of gravel roads and trails to the west, skirting past Mount Iron. Because of the breezy conditions, several windsurfers were out testing their mettle on Dublin Bay. Back on terra firma, the stiff crosswinds and sandy sections of trail along the lake made things interesting for those of us on two wheels. But the scenery across the water to the peaks of Mt Aspiring National Park made the extra effort worthwhile. Cathy and I occasionally stopped to admire the views from places like Beacon Point and Eely Point.

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On the outskirts of town, the trails also gave us an appreciation for some of the gorgeous million-dollar lakefront ‘cottages’. We passed one fellow out barbecuing in his back yard, and the scent reignited my latent hamburger cravings. Our bike ride wrapped up at the same beach where we’d stopped for lunch a few hours earlier. This time Nat was there to hand out ginger beer popsicles, which definitely hit the spot.

We dropped off our bikes and wandered up and down the sleepy streets of Wanaka while the rest of our bike gang rolled into town. Since it was a Sunday afternoon in early summer, life in this resort town was very laid back and casual. Our guides later told us that things usually don’t get hopping until mid-December through January, when the weather is warm and Kiwis are on summer holiday.

Our destination for the next few days of the tour was the gorgeous west coast. We drove part way there after our snack, stopping for the night at the sprawling metropolis of Makarora. As soon as we stepped off the bus, I think our crew of 18 people probably doubled the town’s population. The accommodations were A-frame chalets that a creative realtor might have described as “charming” or “rustic”. Let’s just say that motel rooms that lock and unlock using an antique skeleton key are hard to find these days. Even though an interior decorator hadn’t seen the inside of these chalets since the Beatles broke up, you couldn’t beat the location. Mount Aspiring National Park was just beyond my front porch in all its snow-capped splendour.

We met in the central mess hall at 7 pm for dinner. Much to my delight, Nat had somehow read my mind and prepared barbecue burgers and salads for us. Craving resolved! It turned out that a nice Central Otago merlot is the perfect match for a Kiwi-style cheeseburger, especially after a long day of outdoor pursuits.

Despite a cool drizzle outside, our gang got together at the local pub for a nightcap. We chatted excitedly about our Rimu tour experiences, and told some tales about life back home. At times it was hard to tell who was making more noise – our group on the comfy sofas or the brood of colourful locals cloistered near the bar. Regardless, it was pretty clear that we had just enjoyed a perfect day of outdoor adventures in each other’s company.

Though if I had it to do all over again, maybe I’d start with the French toast…

Song of the Day: “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed

Day 15 – Out of Control

The sixth day of the Rimu tour was our free day in Queenstown. But as anyone who’s spent more than fifteen minutes in this adventure nexus knows, ‘free’ is not a word that holds any currency in Queenstown. You will have a riotously exciting day, but bring a sack full of money.

I bumped into Cathy in the lobby of our hotel, so we sauntered down the street to a café called Bob’s Weigh for a nice breakfast. Five straight days of mueslix and toast on tour was getting pretty old, so I ordered a Denver omelette. Colin and Sally were also at the café, so we chatted about the previous evening’s shenanigans and our plans for the upcoming day. Colin and Sally and Cathy were all set to go whitewater rafting with Cam and Bil. I was quietly chiding myself for not signing up as well, but my blackwater tubing adventure on the north island was enough of a challenge to last this hydrophobe for a while. The mountain biking at Rotorua was so much fun that I had to try it again in Queenstown. We made lunch plans and then went our separate ways.

Around 9:30 am, I rented a Specialized downhill mountain bike from a shop on Camp Street. In Rotorua, a standard bike helmet and some padded gloves were all the safety equipment I needed. I should have suspected that something was up when the lady at the rental shop offered to set me up with a full crash helmet, elbow pads, and shin pads. I thought the shin pads were a bit over-the-top, but I put on the rest of the gear and set off for the gondola.

In retrospect, I probably should have taken the shin pads.

One thing I didn’t realize about downhill bikes is that they are heavier, sturdier, and geared differently than cross-country bikes. Whereas my Mongoose in Rotorua had 27 slick-shifting gears, my Queenstown ride had just 9. This became painfully obvious as I rode uphill from the rental shop to the base of the gondola. The trip is maybe six or seven blocks on paved city streets, but I think my heart rate hit 200 bpm as I ground away in first gear up the slope. The non-lockable full suspension didn’t do me any favours, either. A lot of my leg power went into compressing the shock absorber instead of turning the wheels.

Another thing I didn’t realize is that the trails at the Queenstown gondola are steeper than Whakarewarewa Forest. By which I mean WAY steeper. The lady at the bike shop had assured me that the moderately challenging blue-square run was a lot of fun, and the easy green-circle run was “suitable for kids and grandmothers”. This turned out to be complete bullshit.

I forgot that Kiwis are infamous for the art of understatement. Ask a Kiwi about a town at the other end of the island, and they will guilelessly call it “a little ways down the road”. The elevation difference between the gondola base and terminus is 450 metres. The green run, ‘Hammy’s Track’ is about 6 km long, so the average downhill grade is 7.5%. Take into consideration the flat sections at the midway clearing and the bottom, and the grade is often much steeper. ‘Hammy’s Track’ is nice and wide, the hazards are easy enough to spot in advance, and the corners are steeply banked. But for a certified amateur rider like me, it was hard not to be distracted by the steep drop-offs from the edge of the trail. If you should ever make a small mistake and go over the edge, a world of hurt would rush up to greet you. The whole time on trail, I felt like I had something frantic by the Chemical Brothers playing on an endless loop in my brain. My interior monologue, meanwhile, was random variations on “Don’t die! Don’t die! Don’t die!”

Needless to say, my first run down ‘Hammy’s Track’ was pretty terrifying. Maybe that’s not unexpected for someone that doesn’t know the turns and jumps and was just getting used to a new bike. My second run was quite a bit more fun, because I knew which corners I had to slow down for and in which sections I could just let it roll. My third run was probably the best; I started to actually seek out the bigger jumps and rollers and I was confident enough to let my tail slide around some of the corners.

Somewhat emboldened by three successful ‘easy’ runs, I figured it was time to tackle the blue run. The top half is called ‘Vertigo’ and comes by its name honestly. The features are pretty similar to ‘Hammy’s Track’ but with double the average grade. I made it through without any serious peril, but I gave my disc brakes a pretty harsh workout. I stopped at the midway clearing for some water and a few photos before embarking on the lower half of the blue trail.

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‘Original’ is a lot of fun, if you have the nerve to fully exploit its twists and turns. Some of the corners are very fast with steep banks. I particularly liked flying over the table-tops, but in my glee I carried a little too much speed into a steep chute and just about lost control. Epic amounts of speed-wobble and frantic brake screeching ensued. I soon found myself rejoining the lower section of ‘Hammy’s Track’ en route to the gondola. I had survived!

After returning my bike and gear, I got cleaned up at the hotel and met up with my friends. With takeaway lunches from the legendary Fergburger, we did some people-watching from a sunny park across the street. Cam and Cathy told me hilarious tales from their whitewater rafting adventure, and I tried to convey the alternating currents of terror and excitement that I’d experienced on the downhill trails.

A few days earlier, my new UK friend Colin had brazenly thrown down the gauntlet and challenged our group to join him at the Queenstown Luge. Cathy, Sally and I accepted his invitation to glory and we moseyed up the hill after our monstrous lunch. For about NZ$50 per person, you get a gondola ride to and from the summit, plus chairlift access and five runs down your choice of two 800-metre concrete street-luge tracks. Our first run was down the somewhat flatter and wider ‘scenic’ track, which gave us an opportunity to learn how to steer and brake our carts. Our second run was down the ‘advanced’ track, with several fast straightaways and tight hairpin turns.

Then things got competitive.

Colin and I chose to make our last three runs a best-of-three contest. The rules were simple – we start side-by-side and the first one to the finish line wins. Colin got the hole shot on our first competitive run, but with a little more finesse I carried more speed through the subsequent corners. Two-thirds of the way down I was primed to blast past my new friend so I gallantly called out “Passing on your right!” Colin responded by squeezing me against the side of the track and taking the checkered flag for himself. Okay, dude. It’s on.

Our second competitive run amped up the intensity. I slipped out into an early lead, but I took the wrong line through one of the big sweeping corners and a gleeful Colin overtook me. As I watched from his blind spot, I could tell that he was carrying too much speed through some of the lower corners. He got away with it for a few turns, but then disaster struck. Colin clipped the curb, his cart started to shudder, and then he and his cart ceased to be one contiguous unit. Track-side photographic evidence later revealed in glorious detail how Colin had exited the cart, put down his right hand to brace for landing, then proceeded to skid on his bum down the hill. For a split-second I considered stopping to see if he was okay but, remembering the tough lesson from our previous run, I zoomed by and claimed the checkered flag for myself. What can I say – I’m a competitor. Besides, Colin was fine – aside from a scraped elbow, torn pants, and a badly bruised ego.

In a brief moment of sportsmanship, we decided to call our best-of-three event a draw. Cathy and I carted down the track together on our fifth and final run. It turns out that she distills all of Colin’s competitive spirit into a much smaller, more attractive package and our run was a hotly contested affair. I was fortunate to squeak out a victory, but it could have easily gone either way. Afterward, Sally took Colin back into town to get him cleaned up while Cathy and I enjoyed some malted beverages on the summit’s observation deck. We watched with admiration as people bungy-jumped and paraglided off the cliffs of Bob’s Peak.

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Later that evening, Bil and Cam joined us for drinks on a patio down by the waterfront. We watched the sun set on the Remarkables mountain range, then wandered uptown in search of dinner. We settled on a two-storey Irish pub that had a commanding view of the Saturday night pub crawls and hen parties. The ladies also approved of the Eighties arena-rock mix being piped into the restaurant. Apparently all it takes to get our female friends up and dancing to Journey is half a dozen Cosmos and a few rounds of naughtily named New Zealand shooters. Don’t stop believing, indeed.

Song of the Day: “Out of Control” by the Chemical Brothers

Day 14 – Animal Life

Rusting in the shade of the batteries
Hanging from a rope in the gallery
Pacing down the balance beam
of half-remembered holidays

Murmurs in the dark confessional
and rides along the road, ephemeral
as an animal life

Our accommodations at Milford Sound were certainly spartan, and the 6:15 am breakfast call was a little harsh.  But our eye-opening itinerary made perfect sense once we made it down to the waterfront.  We were going sea kayaking on world-famous Milford Sound, and by being out on the water by 8:00 am we were hours ahead of the day-tripper crowds from Queenstown.

But first, we needed to get kitted out for our guided tour.  The good folks at Rosco’s Milford Kayaks outfitted us with all manner of neoprene wetsuits, rain jackets, form-flattering skirts, and ultra-stylish striped thermal leggings.  We lathered on the citronella-based repellent to try to keep the hordes of sandflies at bay, with mixed success.  Our guides gave us some basic instructions on how to paddle, how to steer, and (most importantly) what to do if your kayak rolled upside down.  Since we would be paddling in chilly sea water more than 1,000 feet deep, I paid particular attention to the last part.

And with that, we pushed off into the Sound.  I knew that Betsy had kayaking experience, so I was happy that she agreed to steer our two-seat kayak while I provided propulsion up front.  It didn’t take long to observe why two-seat kayaks are nicknamed “divorce boats”.  It’s very difficult for the person in the front seat to turn around and talk to their associate in the back seat.  Everything went smoothly once Betsy and I figured out how to work together on paddling, navigating, and steering into the occasional wave or boat’s wake.

The sixteen Rimu tourists split into two groups of four boats, and each group was accompanied by an experienced guide.  We went for about a four-hour loop around the head of Milford Sound, our senses revelling in the gorgeous scenery and local wildlife.  It was fun to row alongside Cathy and Danny or Colin and Sally to chat or (very carefully) exchange cameras; the situation only occasionally devolved into a demolition derby of amateur kayakers.

We could hear the monkey-like shriek of fiordland crested penguins nesting in the rocks, just above the shoreline.  From time to time we would see a penguin in the water, bobbing up for a quick breath before making another dive.  After crossing to the other shoreline, we found a baby seal sprawled out on a rock, just hanging out.  Not long after, a larger member of its colony swam right past our kayak, doing a barrel roll and inspecting the interlopers.  The highlight of the tour came when Sally tempted fate and commented that it would be great to see a dolphin.  Mere seconds later, a dolphin obliged Sally’s request and briefly slipped above the shimmering waters off our starboard side.  It happened too quickly for me to get my camera out of its waterproof pouch, but the image was permanently etched in my mind.

While most visitors tour Milford Sound by cruise ship, I could see why sea kayaking is considered the far superior way to go.  Not only is there less environmental impact, but you can get right up close to the wildlife with minimal disruption to their daily routines.  I also thought that the jagged mountains lining the fiord and the multitude of waterfalls looked more dramatic from water level.  There were great photo opportunities in every direction.

Bowen Falls - Milford Sound

Lady Bowen Falls – Milford Sound

The Mitre and other peaks loom over Milford Sound

The Mitre, and other peaks, loom over Milford Sound

We were sad to bid such a beautiful place goodbye, but happy to enjoy a hot lunch back at the lodge to help chase away the cold and damp.  Around 2:00 pm, we boarded ‘Frank’ for the long trip back up the valley to Te Anau.  It was my turn to sit at the front of the bus, which meant I had an unobstructed view of the mountains AND the road tunes were in my hands.  I put together a special playlist of songs inspired by the dramatic Milford scenery, and it seemed to go over well with my fellow travellers (especially Sally and Cam).  Some of the highlights were:

  • Ben Folds Five – “Sky High”
  • The Boxer Rebellion – “Both Sides are Even”
  • Coldplay – “The Scientist”
  • Crowded House – “Four Seasons In One Day”
  • The New Pornographers – “The Bleeding Heart Show”
  • Oasis – “Little By Little”
  • Peter Gabriel – “Sky Blue”
  • R.E.M. – “The Great Beyond”
  • Shearwater – “Animal Life”
  • U2 – “Where The Streets Have No Name”

After a half-hour pit stop in Te Anau, we carried on to Queenstown.  We checked into a very nice hotel, which stood in stark contrast to the previous night’s lodgings.  Wow, this place has televisions and phones, and tables & chairs, and even laundry machines.  Fancy!  I think everyone was glad to be back in civilization for the weekend and took a nice, hot shower.  My new friends and I ambled over to a restaurant called Ballarat for dinner and drinks.  I indulged a craving and ordered a rack of pork ribs, which went wonderfully with a couple pints of South Island dark ale.  We closed out the day by checking out the legendary Queenstown Friday night pub scene, and made plans to cross paths again the next day in the adventure capital of New Zealand.

Song of the Day: “Animal Life” by Shearwater